Sunday, April 30, 2017

Gotta Have Faith: "A Dark Song" a mystifying, modestly creepy two-hander

A Dark Song (2017) 
100 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“A Dark Song” is a very unusual kind of horror indie. Predominantly a two-hander and playing like a procedural in the occult, it’s a chamber drama about grief, faith and forgiveness, as well as a Chinese puzzle box that neglects to hold the hands of viewers who are accustomed to getting their creeps in graphic, obvious close-ups rather than gradually. It serves as a strong calling card for first-time feature writer-director Liam Gavin, who astutely builds an ominous tone and mystifying mood. Darkly enticing with an almost impenetrable air about it, “A Dark Song” is admittedly tough-going at times, but it transfixes nonetheless and packs a lingering, understated punch.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is now defined by her grief. She buys an old furnished house in the Welsh countryside for a year. She has purified herself without alcohol for almost six months, has abstained from sex, only eats between dusk and dawn and will eventually fast completely. She has paid a slovenly, unpredictably tempered London bloke named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), who comes to check out the house and then demands his money. When she ups his pay and tells him that she lost her son three years ago, Joseph reconsiders to help her go through with “it” if she agrees to do whatever he says. For almost a whole year, the odd couple holes up in the house with a line of sand outside the house that prevents them from leaving. Even while the prickly Joseph experiences delirium tremens, he puts Sophia through something darker than most ancient rituals.

Curiosity piqued from the onset, “A Dark Song” is quietly gripping as one not only waits for the other shoe to drop but to actually piece together both characters’ goals. Though this is a horror film, it is one made with so much care and with more on its mind. Childlike whispers and dark figures make their rightful appearance, but this isn’t really a haunted-house picture. Most of the tension hails from the partnership between Sophia and Joseph. At first, they are both intriguing ciphers cutting themselves off from the world, but vulnerable layers are slowly peeled back little by little and achieve sympathy. Her Sophia is getting through the grieving process the only way she knows how, and his Joseph is sometimes a contentious bully. Whether or not Joseph really is an expert in the occult and wants to help Sophia becomes the question at the core of the film, and Sophia must put her blind faith in him.

For a film about dark magic evoking human catharsis, “A Dark Song” follows through with its premise and internal logic. In doing so, writer-director Liam Gavin takes a gambit near the end with a grandiose special-effects moment that threatens to break the spell of suggestion. Fortunately, it does not. Helping the cause are the finely modulated performances Gavin gets out of his cast consisting of Catherine Walker (2013’s “Dark Touch”) and Steve Oram (2013’s “Sightseers”), who both fully commit to the mentally and emotionally draining demands of the material. The film also never wants for disorientation with composer Ray Harman's eerie music score, a mix of violin and clangy chords. Through modest means and most likely a tight shooting schedule, Gavin achieves more than most filmmakers do with a multi-million-dollar budget.


Friday, April 28, 2017

They See All: Preachy, flat, trite "The Circle" wants to be About Something

The Circle (2017)
110 min., rated PG-13.

For a zeitgeisty cautionary tale about Big Brother surveillance, the invasion of privacy and the oversharing on social media being a double-edged sword, “The Circle” holds less suspense than a TED Talk. And for a film that gives top billing to the lovely Emma Watson and the impossibly charismatic Tom Hanks, it really stumps one how such a well-pedigreed project gets everything so wrong. The source material is a prescient Orwellian 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with writer-director James Ponsoldt. For a filmmaker who has shined with low-key, character-driven films about intimate human communication, like 2012’s raw “Smashed,” 2013’s honestly observed “The Spectacular Now” and 2015’s smart, poignant “The End of the Tour,” was director Ponsoldt just out of his depth when working on a bigger canvas with even higher ambitions? With a more decisive vision, a steady handling of the narrative and its characters, and none of the poor creative decisions uploaded to the screen, who knows what might have been? As it is, “The Circle” is a dull, maddening mess that disappoints all around and never fulfills its great potential.

24-year-old Mae Holland (Emma Watson) works a dead-end cubicle job at a water company, dealing with unsatisfied callers as a customer-service representative, and wishes she could help out more at home with her mother (Glenne Headly) and MS-afflicted father (Bill Paxton). When she gets a call from best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about getting an interview for a workplace called The Circle, Mae jumps at the opportunity to be a part of the hip, modern data-collecting and information-sharing corporation in the Bay Area (think Google meets Facebook meets Apple). It’s a dream gig and a fun, open community full of ambitious millennials like herself, and after receiving an entry-level position in the "Customer Experience" department, Mae is welcomed as one of the “guppies (or, “new kids”) at one of many lectures by Steve Jobs-like guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the company’s CEO. Everyone is encouraged to go “transparent,” wearing a mini camera on their person and recording everything for the world to see (save for bathroom breaks timed to three minutes), and in the next few months of working at The Circle, Mae will comply to the motto of her new company. It seems all too good to be true, but is it all for the greater good?

Preachy, dramatically flat and ultimately trite, “The Circle” looks smarter than it actually is and seems unable to make up its mind on what it wants to say. The setup is certainly enticing and cinematographer Matthew Libatique vividly juxtaposes Mae’s down-home life with the industrial steeliness of The Circle; the sleek shots that follow Mae walking on campus are also appropriate, as if drones are keeping an eye on her. Seen through the film and not just Eggers’ novel, there are plenty of interesting ideas ready to be explored, but they’re only half-formed and handled so haphazardly, writer-director Ponsoldt and co-writer Eggers too fickle about what they want their audience to take away. One spends a large chunk of the film’s 110 minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not enough conflict is actually established, just muddled messaging, clumsily written character arcs, laughable plot developments (one in particular is overwrought and forehead-slapping when it should be tragic and shocking) and weak performance takes. There is one overacted scene in particular where two perky "circlers" approach Mae at her desk, telling her that they’ve noticed she hasn’t joined any group activities or opened up to The Circle's sense of connectivity, and it never strikes that right tone between nervously amusing and sinister. Aside from maybe two exceptions, there is even a distinct lack of chemistry between most of the characters, as if everyone met two minutes before the cameras started rolling.

Emma Watson is a fine guide as Mae, seemingly willing to go to darker, edgier places than the film actually allows for her relatively thin character. Her interview scene has an intelligence and snappy energy to it, but as the film goes along, she seems adrift and not because of her character’s displacement in the story or kayaking being her favorite pastime. Mae is skeptical at first, as anyone else with a working set of eyes and ears would be. Her arc, then, happens so fast in the choppy final edit that scenes seem to be missing. Before we know it, she makes the terrible decision to sneak through the gate of her favorite kayaking spot and paddle off the bay at night, going past the buoy into fog. This leads her to being hit by a boat and nearly drown, and then the next day having a conversation with Eamon Bailey, who gets her to speak a truth; from there, Mae hastily becomes a history-making web girl and spokesperson for The Circle, but it’s never clear if the character has actually taken a real drink of the Kool-Aid or is just putting on a ruse.

Starring in his second Dave Eggers adaptation (“A Hologram for the King” was last year), Tom Hanks seems well-suited for the part of The Circle’s co-founder Eamon Bailey because he radiates trustworthiness, but he’s barely there. Although selling his TED Talk-esque scenes on stage, the actor is unchallenged the rest of the time, while Patton Oswalt seems miscast as COO Stenton. John Boyega (so charismatic in 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) completely goes to waste as Ty, the inventor of The Circle’s technology who’s supposed to be in hiding and yet hangs out on his phone during the campus parties. He comes and goes so often that it wouldn’t be unbelievable if one were to read him as a figment of Mae’s imagination. Karen Gillan charges out of the gate with pep in her step as Annie, but once her character evolves, it happens so quickly that there’s more confusion than impact. Then there’s Ellar Coltrane, who’s great to see on the big screen again after 2014's “Boyhood,” but as Mae’s off-the-grid carpenter friend Mercer, his exchanges between Watson always feel written and unnatural. The only two characters in the film with actual chemistry are Mae’s parents, played by the always-lovely Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton in his final role.

“The Circle” may aim to be relevant and About Something, keeping its finger on the pulse of the current digital age, but whatever point it wants to make becomes lost in a film troubled by much noticeable post-production tinkering. Instead of making one think about much afterwards, it just does a lot of lecturing and makes the viewer think about what isn’t working. Instead of becoming an alarmist tech thriller, one keeps wondering why it isn’t more thrilling and why the level of paranoia isn’t taken above a low simmer. Additionally, the wrap-up is abrupt and unsatisfying with consequences never properly dealt with—and if that’s the point, the sense of irony doesn’t hit hard—as if Mae hasn’t taken away the right lesson and hasn’t really learned much of anything. For a character who talks about accountability, Mae certainly doesn’t own up to her mistakes that costs someone their life. This is one of those films that thinks it’s deep and insightful when it actually teaches very little.

Grade: C - 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Body Tests: “Rupture” begins with promise, then ruptures into silliness

Rupture (2017)
102 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Best known for S&M romance “Secretary” back in 2002, director Steven Shainberg (2006’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”) unfortunately chose “Rupture” as his first film in a decade. From a script by screenwriter Brian Nelson (2005’s “Hard Candy”), Shainberg holds his audience for the first half, setting up a bizarre perilous situation for its protagonist, but it would mean more if the conclusion to the mystery actually paid off. Sometimes, a mystery is more interesting when it's just kept a mystery, unless the filmmakers come up with an incredible explanation. Alas, that is not the case here. Aside from ace neon-heavy cinematography by Karim Hussain (2015’s “We Are Still Here”), “Rupture” is a distinctly unsatisfying kidnapping/torture/body-horror/sci-fi thriller that devolves—or should we say rupture?—into silliness with seriously dodgy CGI straight out of a schlocky direct-to-video release circa 2002.

Ready for a girls’ weekend to go skydiving, divorced mother Renee Morgan (Noomi Rapace) drops off son Evan (Percy Hynes White) at her ex-husband’s house. When her tire blows out in the middle of the highway, it’s no accident when a pair of truck drivers stop to help her. Instead, they tase Renee to the ground, wrap her entire head with electrical tape and throw her into the back of the truck. After a few hours, Renee is wheeled on a gurney into an underground compound and surrounded by a group of strangers (including Lesley Manville, Peter Stormare, Kerry Bishé and Michael Chiklis) who proceed to make her one of several subjects for tests and experiments. By using her arachnophobia, they just might get her to “rupture.”

“Rupture” doesn’t die on the vine right away. When the film is being an abduction thriller with a mystery to keep, it is a harrowing blend of the mundane with portent and tension. Before anything seems off, foreshadowing sign posts are set up, conveniently introducing Renee’s arachnophobia in the film's opening, and there's a lingering shot of an X-Acto knife that Renee puts in her pocket (could it come in handy later on?). Still, there are individual moments that manage to be suspenseful and effectively squirmy, like when Renee crawls between rooms through a ventilation duct or when she is terrorized by some eight-legged terrors in a scarily compromising position. Then, when the dots are connected and merge with science fiction, the proceedings become rather silly, screechy, and half-baked. 

Put through the physical and psychological wringer, Noomi Rapace is very watchable and gets the viewer to worry for her, albeit mostly by default—she seems like a nice single mom—but as the film goes on, she only has to scream while strapped to a slab. No performer comes off too well here, which leaves the rest of the largely familiar-faced cast playing on the same strange, brainwashed, pod-person note throughout as Renee’s creepy captors. Who they are isn’t that difficult to figure out and the less said about their identity, the better. With the end result feeling like M. Night Shyamalan on a bad day, “Rupture” is a chore of a B-movie that brings little fear factor and almost nothing to the table.

Grade: C - 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ice Queen: “Unforgettable” blends the formulaic, trashy and nervy

Unforgettable (2017)
100 min., rated R.

On the face of it, “Unforgettable”—a title that really doesn’t mean much—initially seems like there is nothing new at play here since the 1990s when the “…from Hell” thriller genre was hot and exploited mental illness for entertainment value. 1987’s “Fatal Attraction” set the precedent, and since then, there have been a slew of copycats and like-minded Lifetime movies. In recent years, variations on this run-of-the-mill template have either endeavored to be something more (2009’s “Chloe” and 2015’s “The Gift”) or were just guilty pleasures (2015’s “The Boy Next Door”), diverting time-wasters (2009’s “Obsessed,” 2015’s “The Perfect Guy” and 2016’s “When the Bough Breaks”), or just bad (2011’s “The Roommate”). Veteran producer Denise Di Novi makes her directorial debut here, with a screenplay by Christina Hodson (2016's "Shut In"), and luckily, she knows exactly the type of movie she’s making. Only sometimes bordering on camp but careful never to actually cross it, “Unforgettable” is otherwise a glossy, trashy melodrama that doesn’t stray far from the outdated formula but derives watchably wicked pleasure and even a modicum of substance from the lead performances by Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl.

A survivor of domestic abuse by a former boyfriend, blog editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) is about to start her new chapter, moving to a small Southern California town to live with fiancée David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). She’s kept that difficult part of her life a secret from her beau, as well as a restraining order she has against her ex, but adding to her nerves is David’s ex-wife living not too far away to remind Julia that she might not be cut out for stepmotherhood. Tessa (Katherine Heigl) is tightly wound, always maintaining a perfect façade and clearly up to no good. She obsessively conspires to ruin the other woman’s blissful relationship before Julia and David officially tie the knot when she steals Julia’s phone and finds information that she can work with. As Tessa’s plan goes, Julia begins to crack, but of how much more is she capable?

Make no mistake, “Unforgettable” is not a deep psychological study, but there is a little more shading to Tessa than a one-note villainess, and it’s a testament to Katherine Heigl for making her more fascinating than she might have been. Freed from playing a blandly likable romantic lead, she has finally found a properly juicy fit for her persona. It was first seen in 2015’s “Home Sweet Hell,” an uneven black comedy no one saw, and whatever its many problems, Heigl was not one of them as a prickly, type-A Stepfordized wife who killed to keep her perfect-on-the-surface life. Once again, the actress seems to be actually having fun in maliciously evil mode, whether she’s vaping and drinking red wine when plotting her revenge in front of her computer, efficiently banging the waitstaff at David’s brewery, polishing silverware with gloves, and aggressively brushing her daughter’s hair and forcing her to be an equestrian like herself. Fury incarnate as the cunning Tessa, the statuesque Heigl is persuasive and deliciously icy, but the viewer even gets a sense of why she is the way she is, a product of her equally icy mother (Cheryl Ladd) with an untreated mental illness and worthy of a hint of sympathy at least. This is the Katherine Heigl we've all been waiting for, and it would almost be inconceivable if she wasn't anything like Tessa in real life.

Rosario Dawson brings equal strength and vulnerability to her part as Julia, who’s made worth rooting for, despite her decision to not tell David about her past. As with any project, Dawson’s emotions and reactions never feel less than true. There is also one particularly kinky sequence in which Julia, her mind on one track after Tessa drunkenly went on about David’s insatiable sexual prowess, takes the challenge in a restaurant restroom, intercut with Tessa masturbating. On account of how the part of David is written rather than the actor’s capabilities, Geoff Stults is handsome but boring, however, there wouldn’t be much conflict if he were extremely bright and clued into Tessa’s motives. As Tessa’s passive-aggressive mother, Cheryl Ladd is suitably frosty and informs who Tessa is as an adult; when she shows her daughter disapproval over the scones for teatime not being homemade, one relishes in the moment. Finally, comedian Whitney Cummings makes an impression, appealingly fulfilling the seemingly thankless role of Julia’s boss and friend, who otherwise would have been used to just be killed off.

“Unforgettable” is anything but, and it helps that it rarely pretends to be more than it is. In a way, it reminds one of Chris Columbus’ “Stepmom” with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon turned on its ear. Director Denise Di Novi does not forget to insert the violent and crazy into the soapy melodrama, particularly when a hair-pulling, knock-down, drag-out catfight is something to be expected. The one here decidedly delivers on that front, as Heigl and Dawson really go for it, slamming each other up against walls and making a mess of Tessa’s elegant foyer with a fireplace poker. With that said, how it ends is pretty nervy for the subgenre’s standards. Judged wholly on its own merits, “Unforgettable” is a tastily tawdry blend of the familiar and unexpected that works and might go well with a glass of Cabernet or three. Above all, may this be the beginning of a “Heiglssance.”

Grade: B - 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

These Deals Were Made For Shooting: "Free Fire" a genre exercise that grows monotonous

Free Fire (2017)
90 min., rated R.

Profane banter. Lots of gunfire. John Denver music. In principle, “Free Fire” is the kind of tight, darkly fun low-budget genre exercise that cinephiles would eat up. The too-cool-for-school footprint made by anything Quentin Tarantino, particularly 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” is all over this blackly comic chamber piece about an arms deal gone wrong (read: a real-time, feature-length shootout), except that this one pales in practice. Not much more than a powder-keg situation, the film is narratively simple and unburdened by complexity. Writer-director Ben Wheatley (2012’s “Kill List,” 2013’s “Sightseers,” and 2016’s “High-Rise”) and wife/co-writer Amy Jump do carry a snarky, absurdist tone throughout here with the dynamic of his cast, so if there is anything congruous between "Free Fire" and the cult filmmaker's previous projects, it’s his specific sense of gallows humor. The fact that a bunch of mostly awful people end up nearly dead and/or caught is most likely the joke, and a cynical one at that, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a pass when the outcome is this sloppy and less clever than it thinks it is.

In 1978, two groups of characters meet in an abandoned Boston warehouse for a covert arms deal. Irish Republican Army rebels Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are buying, and Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) are orchestrating the deal with their connections to the sellers, South African gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). When Chris does not get what he ordered, finding AR-7s instead of his promised M-16s, both parties get off to the wrong foot. Tensions rise even more when the token dolt, Stevo (Sam Riley), recognizes Vernon’s driver, Harry (Jack Reynor), and has a big beef with him. One shot is fired, and then it’s mostly every man (and woman) for himself. Who could possibly be left standing? 

Lasting only 90 minutes, "Free Fire" still feels overextended and never taut enough. Instead of escalating and kicking into high gear, it just becomes static and monotonous. The characters aren’t particularly engaging enough to endear the viewer or given enough attention before the gunfire to get to know them and become invested in whether they live or die. Really, they are less characters than they are chess pieces with busy mouths. Once introductions are out of the way and everyone is wounded, it’s a lot of shots being fired, ducking behind crates and cement blocks, and crawling around on the dirty floor. The sense of geography and where one is in relation to another in the space is never well-established that, for all we know, each character might as well be in a different warehouse. There is very little variety to any of the action, and the scope is limited and claustrophobic without aiding the tension. Even for an ultra-violent farce, the carnage lacks ingenuity, save for one’s character squishy demise against a van.

It has certainly been adeptly cast. Most of the actors get his and her day, adding color with snappy, albeit generally forgettable, bon mots, while being outfitted in ’70s clothing. Only a handful of the performances are noteworthy, however, including Armie Hammer, a hoot and impeccably dressed as Ord; Sharlto Copley, who brings a sexist, boorish charm and bravado as “international asshole” Vernon; and Brie Larson, if only because she elevates everything and her Justine is at least a little more sensible than the men.

Combining purposefully rough-and-tumble but not-very-stylish camerawork and Wheatley's increasingly muddled staging, the film never really cooks. Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury score is right on at least, as is a recurring saxophone flourish to their music score, and a sight gag involving a skeleton umbrella in the third act amuses. With really no one to cling to—maybe Justine because she’s the only woman and she’s played by Brie Larson, or maybe Armie Hammer because he’s so charismatic and handsome?—the grimly ironic punchline means nothing when it's all over. “Free Fire” seems like it has the necessary ingredients for a no-frills technical challenge, as if inspired by a stage play, but it ends up just being empty, pointless nihilism without being able to walk the walk or completely talk the talk.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Monster Smashed: "Colossal" audacious enough to make up for tonal flaws

Colossal (2017) 
110 min., rated R.

An alcoholic confronting inner monsters has never been explored in the way it is in writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal,” where the monster is both literal and metaphorical in a story both human and fantastical. Grafting a you-can’t-go-home-again indie comedy and addiction drama to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” of all things, it is an ambitious combo that sounds heavy-handed but nearly reinvents the Japanese kaiju monster movie with its wildly weird, objectively original conceit. Between 2008's "Timecrimes" and 2014's “Open Windows,” Vigalondo is a filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice—even if they are all audacious undertakings—and “Colossal” is surely a breath of fresh air with a wonderfully unusual whopper of an idea for a genre-hopping hybrid. That it hazards to be daring and different almost makes up for the merging of two disparate genres not always hanging together snugly.

Gloria (Anna Hathaway) is a trainwreck. She has little money and no prospects after losing her writing job months ago. When she returns home to her New York City loft apartment still drunk following a late night, Gloria finds her bags already packed by fed-up English boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). With nothing else to lose, she heads back to her hometown and squats in her childhood home on an air mattress. Gloria runs into an old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who owns a half-renovated bar and offers her a job. Though she knows it’s probably not a good idea, she slips right back into her old habits after hanging out with Oscar and his two drinking buddies, bar fly Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and puppyish simpleton Joel (Austin Stowell). One morning, she wakes up hungover in typical fashion but discovers on the news that a Godzilla-like monster has attacked Seoul, South Korea, and soon comes to realize that her actions and physical movements synchronized with the monster are not even close to coincidental. The consequences of Gloria thoughtlessly getting blackout drunk are as big and catastrophic as the collateral damage in Seoul.

“Colossal” isn’t always comfortable in the tricky tonal shifts it has to make, but its pure audacity counts for a lot. Beginning with a small-scale, down-home vibe and a focus on personal struggles, the film initially sees Gloria shocked and saddened by the news reporting the loss of lives on the other side of the world, and then when she realizes the monster is caught on camera and mimics a familiar nervous tick of hers, she’s dumbfounded. Once the story zigs and zags, it takes inventive and surprising shape. Just before the film might back itself into a corner, there is a method to Nacho Vigalondo’s madness, as he taps into something darker and more serious, using the monster angle as a metaphor for addiction, abusive relationships, and overall pain. 

The viewer will either go with the surreal leaps taken by “Colossal” or not. With such a one-of-a-kind premise, part of the fun is seeing if Nacho Vigalondo can pull it all off when he eventually has to explain himself. The film increasingly hints at the source of the monster, flashing back twenty-five years earlier to a young Gloria (Hannah Cheramy), and as Vigalondo keeps the reason for Gloria’s monster manifesting itself so close to the vest and underdeveloped, it’s like a dangling carrot. It is a stretch how the two narrative planes connect, but one respects how the story is kept grounded for so long and keeps the rules consistent (i.e. the destruction on Seoul only happens when Gloria is in a certain place at a certain time). By the end of it all, Gloria’s alcoholism just kind of fritters away, as if Vigalondo no longer knows how to handle it. The results are not seamless, but they are interestingly oddball.

Watching Anne Hathaway play a functioning alcoholic, it’s hard not to think of her raw, achingly true turn as a drug-addicted black sheep and perpetual screw-up in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Hiding behind her bangs, Hathaway seems more than willing to play Gloria honestly at the cost of likability when a flawed and selfish character is much more interesting. It is a compelling, loosely funny, and affecting performance from the lovely actress who has been the focus of unnecessary hatred in recent years, and there is an empowering quality to Gloria by the end. Oscar is the kind of affable slacker character Jason Sudeikis can play in his sleep, but he knows how to play despicable, too, and subverts expectations with Oscar's arc into alcohol-fueled rage and dangerous jealousy. The switch might come off a little sudden, but it’s been there all along, just bottled-up. No doubt about it, “Colossal” has distinction, and it ends with a choice line and reaction by Hathaway, but it's fated to be most memorable for a premise so unique and so-strange-you-got-to-see-it. Perhaps it doesn’t hold the profound catharsis it could have, though it is better to swing for the fences than to go through the motions and not try at all.

Grade: B - 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Family Goes Fast: "Fate of the Furious" certainly needless but still delivers a fun brand of dumb thrills

The Fate of the Furious (2017)
136 min., rated PG-13.

It took seven movies and the crushingly tragic real-life death of one of its leading stars for “The Fast and the Furious” franchise to actually reinvigorate itself and become the movies they should have always been: innately fun live-action cartoons with charisma and outlandish stunts. When these movies finally found a middle ground and tried being less self-serious and a little less earthbound without diving straight into outright parody, they improved with age and more absurdity. The small turnaround began with 2011’s “Fast Five,” but 2015’s “Furious 7” was easily the most favorable entry in the “Fast and the Furious” series. It was gleefully and exhilaratingly amped-up, as well as a poignant capper and tribute coinciding with the passing of Paul Walker. With that said, it’s 2017 and there’s still billions of dollars to be made and more cars to destroy for an eighth installment in this cash-cow franchise. “The Fate of the Furious”—OK, so the titles are just getting more nonsensical—doesn’t better the last, but it still meets one’s cravings with an acceptable brand of spectacularly dumb thrills that keep upping the ante.

Now without brother-from-another-mother Brian O’Conner and sister Mia—they’re retired and off raising their own family—Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon in Cuba. Their second chance at happiness is interrupted when he is blackmailed into taking a job for cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who requires something from him to put her grand agenda into place. When Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) calls back Dom and his team, including Letty, attractive computer hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and class clowns Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), to steal an EMP bomb from Berlin, Dom is already in cahoots with Cipher and makes his act of double-crossing known, albeit not the reason why. From there, some members of the team have made the Top 10 Most Wanted List, but CIA fixer Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new recruit, “Little Nobody” (Scott Eastwood), swoop in to corral them and earn an extra set of hands in foe Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Next up in New York City, where Cipher needs Dom to steal a briefcase of nuclear codes from the Russian Defense Minister, Hobbs and the team find a new base of operations and try to bring Dom back in.

Returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (who penned the previous five scripts) keeps plugging away,  trying to think up new directions to take this series without jumping the shark, while director F. Gary Gray (2015’s “Straight Outta Compton”) gets a piece of the pie and takes over for Justin Lin and James Wan. Neither one holds any pretension for what kind of movie they’re making, and they both know that there’s not much under the hood, just as Dom himself assures us the importance of who’s behind the wheel rather than what’s under that hood. Right off the top, “Fast and the Furious” fans get what they’re looking for: the title cards flying off the screen during aerial shots of Havana; up-skirt shots of booty-shaking chicks in pink thongs; and Dom doing a lot of macho posturing before racing his piece-of-junk car backwards right before the finish line while it’s on fire. As the plot proper gets underway, Dom is the one going rogue and turning on his family this time. It would seem like a switch has just been flipped, like Cipher has witch-like power over Dom, but although the viewer is kept in the dark before the unveiling, the reasons for his involvement are personal. These movies always have a McGuffin; if it’s not the Nightshade device, it’s nuclear codes because it's always about nuclear codes, right?

The action set-pieces are big and ridiculous, just as they should be, albeit sometimes too widely spaced for a 136-minute feature film that does a lot of globe-trotting (this team really gets around). There is an awesome, well-choreographed prison break with Hobbs and Shaw, the sequence entirely cued to electronica. With her team of hackers working hard, Cipher’s eyes fill with evil at her creation of complete chaos in the Manhattan streets by taking control of vehicles and unmanned “zombie cars,” and it’s a nutty sequence of puppet mastery. Finally, there is more gravity-defying fun in Vladain, Russia, on a frozen tundra. First, it’s used for Tyrese Gibson to cling to just the door of an orange Lamborghini as if he were water-tubing, and then has Hobbs steering one of Cipher’s unleashed torpedoes with his tree-trunk legs; all that’s missing is a wholly mammoth riding on top of the nuclear submarine.

With Paul Walker gone, the loss of his presence is still felt, but the cast acts as an ensemble—nay, family—again. Inside and out, Vin Diesel knows how to play family-minded patriarch Dom Toretto with a somewhat interesting wrinkle thrown in. After spending the last few films being an amnesiac and then a recovering amnesiac, Michelle Rodriguez is almost more affecting than the telenovela feel of Letty not knowing the person she loves. Tyrese Gibson and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges are energetic comic relief as always, and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw gets to share a fun enemy-to-ally banter with Dwayne Johnson’s superhuman Hobbs. As for the newcomers, Scott Eastwood is a little bland but an easy-on-the-eyes addition, and Dame Helen Mirren classes things up with her couple of lark-ish scenes, having a cup of tea in a tavern. Growing blonde dreads after having no hair as the badass Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Charlize Theron’s Cipher is decidedly the most memorable of the villains in this particular series, especially for being played by an actress of this caliber. As Cipher, who equates herself to a baby-snatching crocodile at a watering hole, Theron is deliciously insane with ice water in her veins and the ability to give fierce side-eye, but it is a vastly underwritten part that mostly has the actress prattling on about choice theory and standing in the hacking control room of her private plane. That Cipher never actually gets behind the wheel of a car is a missed opportunity, too, and she really should have been given the chance to have a beatdown with Letty, but you can’t get everything you want.

Like Vin Diesel as an actor (and there’s nothing wrong with that), these movies have a limited skill set. When “The Fate of the Furious” is on the go and not getting into the weeds of its pedestrian plot, it fires on most cylinders. Aside from the film ending on a sweet note that proves Paul Walker's spirit will live on, there is too much time spent with someone mentioning the importance of family that it almost puts to shame Adam Sandler’s droning on about the same topic in most of his comedies. And, there are oversights with Deckard Shaw changing sides—forget that he murdered one of Dom’s own two movies ago—and the convenient, unexplained recovery of another villain. Forced humor with Hobbs turning out to be his daughter’s soccer coach actually has its pleasures, as does a whole sequence with a baby and Deckard. “The Fate of the Furious” is certainly needless, but no other popcorn-movie series right now can own a balance of inanity and insanity and make it fun. This installment does what it should and isn’t resting on the series’ laurels.

Grade: B - 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Frankie Pretty: “The Assignment” finds little pulpy fun in gonzo premise

The Assignment (2017)
95 min., rated R.

Formerly called “Tomboy” and then “(Re)Assignment,” transgendered revenge tale “The Assignment” is about a hitman becoming a hitwoman against his, now her, will. Though the film already garnered controversy by the political correctness police when it screened early at film festivals, it’s hard to say whether or not the film is actually “transphobic.” Sure, gender reassignment surgery is used as a punishment for its lead character, but even if the film came off reprehensible in its handling of transgender issues, nothing would change that it’s too talky, tacky, and leaden to reach critical mass as the entertaining B-picture it preferably wants to be. Credit “The Assignment” for the courageously off-color concept, but discredit it for the standard, underwhelming execution that actually does very little with said concept and never goes far enough. The hope for a gonzo, pulpy action-thriller just never becomes the reality.

San Francisco hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) has been a very bad man. When he wakes up, he has involuntarily undergone gender reassignment surgery by a disgraced rogue surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who goes by “The Doctor” and obsesses over William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. Of course, now, Frank is a woman (still Michelle Rodriguez) as a reminder that he killed the surgeon’s brother. According to the surgeon, she proudly performed the surgery on Frank, giving him a new life away from the “macho prison” he’s been living in as a man. Frank is none too happy and goes on his/her way to seek revenge on Dr. Kay and everyone involved on her payroll, including crime boss “Honest John” (Anthony LaPaglia), and hopefully settling down with nurse Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), who hooked up with him/her pre-operation.

Like the kicker of Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” “The Assignment” invites a more transgressive film than the one writer-director Walter Hill (2013’s “Bullet to the Head”) and co-writer Denis Hamill ended up making. Though peppered with screen wipes and black-and-white panels ripped straight from a graphic novel, à la “Sin City,” it’s still never quite lurid or over-the-top enough to be a midnight-movie hoot, providing uninspired shoots-outs and too few gut-level thrills. The payback portion of the plot is bullet-ridden but drab, as there’s not much catharsis or any tension for the viewer to feel for Frank getting justice on those who double-crossed him.

With her voice more monotone than usual for hard-boiled voice-over, Michelle Rodriguez does fine with what she has, including a prosthetic penis and some laughably unconvincing facial hair when she’s still the male Frank Kitchen. Performed hammily with an icy composure by Sigourney Weaver in a straitjacket, the well-spoken but delusional and hubris-driven Dr. Kay is, by far, the more interesting character. She sees herself as an artist and sees gender as identity rather than biology. Her psychoanalysis and interrogation scenes with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) are sometimes fun to watch, but there is a lot of clunky expository dialogue to cover when it's meant to gain insight into Dr. Kay's twistedly highfalutin mind. Even B-movies attempt and sometimes succeed at sneaking in a comment on something of social value, but “The Assignment” doesn’t choose to do this. A depth-free, purely-good-times B-movie is all well and fine, as long as there is something more to recommend it, but there’s not. This is junk and not even the fun kind.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Codger Robbers: "Going in Style" a safe, amiable excuse to watch old pros

Going in Style (2017)
96 min., rated PG-13.

1993’s “Grumpy Old Men” and 1995’s “Grumpier Old Men.” 1997’s “Out to Sea.” 2000’s “Space Cowboys” and “The Crew.” 2013’s “Last Vegas.” One can count on more than one hand the number of comedies revolving around old fogies going back to their youth and the good old days, and by now, it is a moldy genre all its own. “Going in Style,” however, is a remake of the 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, and with the likes of today’s acting legends, this comedic caper with a timely of-our-times backdrop goes down pretty gently. Surprises are few in 2017's inconsequential, albeit amiable, “Going in Style,” but director Zach Braff (2014’s “Wish I Was Here”) and screenwriter Theodore Melfi (2016’s “Hidden Figures”) have such an unbeatable trio set in place that it makes the filmmakers’ jobs that much easier.

Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), and Al (Alan Arkin) are retired Brooklyn seventysomethings who have been friends for more than thirty years. When Joe learns that the mortgage payment on his house has tripled, he hopes to settle the situation at his bank, where at the same moment three men rob the place. In awe of the robbers' skill as a witness, Joe flirts with the idea of pulling off a heist with his two pals, particularly once it’s announced that their former steel mill is freezing all pensions. Roommates Willie and Al initially think Joe is just joking, but once realizing that they have nothing left to lose—the former needs a kidney transplant and only sees his daughter and granddaughter via Skype, and the latter could just use one last hurrah—these two get on board. Even if they get caught and thrown in prison, at least Joe, Willie, and Al can go out with a bang and then have free housing and better medical care. 

Unlike the hacky, overly unctuous “Last Vegas" (which also starred Morgan Freeman), “Going in Style” does not feel the need to pander and constantly reach the lowest-common-denominator. Though the humor does often fall into easy shtick, this is decidedly the better film of the two. It should hardly be a rarity, but one can count their blessings that this one is mercifully free of Viagra jokes and technological ineptitude (i.e. none of the fellas are confused by iPhones or how to operate a computer). Amidst the shenanigans played for laughs, the one nugget of truth in Theodore Melfi’s script is the fact that our three protagonists of a certain age are experiencing a financial crisis in today’s zeitgeist, so, of course, they see it as more than a lark to rob a bank and take back what is theirs.

All playing familiar versions of their on-screen personas, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin aren't out to challenge themselves or snag Oscars for next year. It's apparent that they're having fun together, and watching these three strut their stuff and never break a sweat with their collective charm and charisma is not a bad excuse to kill an hour and a half. The supporting cast is a fine bunch, including Matt Dillon, Christopher Lloyd, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Maria Dizzia, Joey King, Kenan Thompson, and John Ortiz. Ann-Margret, nearly reprising her character from “Grumpy Old Men,” is also always delightful to see, even when her only function here is to play the overtly flirtatious Annie who would like to get it on with the irascible Al.

Considering director Zack Braff showcased more personality behind the camera thirteen years ago in “Garden State,” this is surely an impersonal, even forgettable, studio project for him. He tries to inject verve and energy with the overuse of split screens and pushy instances of broad mugging—Josh Pais is particularly annoying as a bank manager—and one of those generically jaunty comedy music scores obtrudes every now and then. With that said, “Going in Style” is a “nice movie.” It’s never once hilarious, but it is a mildly amusing, safely good-natured crowd-pleaser with more giggles than groans. A trial-run robbery—the guys shoplift food from a local grocery store—followed by their getaway in a motorized shopping cart gets the film’s biggest laugh, while seeing a couple of the geezers get high, or Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret in the sack, is as edgy as things get. Without the caliber of these three senior pros, the film might not have much else going for it, but generally, being in the pleasant company of Caine, Freeman, and Arkin is just enough.

Grade: C +